A new survey, conducted by Corporate Research International (CRI), a national leader in tracking trends, issues and customer loyalty research, has highlighted two important drivers of restaurant patronization – emotional ties to a particular restaurant, and perceived food quality.
CRI received more than 4,330 completed surveys from its nationwide group of panelists. The survey, executed in February and March, asked consumers about their dining out behaviors and experiences. Respondents represented all regions of the country and were restricted to completing only one survey each.
Overall, food quality proved the most important factor when customers determine where to dine. This was followed closely by their interactions with team members. Although the meal's value is important, it bordered in the fifth position in terms of importance, following facility cleanliness.
Sound obvious? Perhaps. But customers seem to have an amorphous idea about exactly what constitutes food quality, which is why CRI officials are executing a follow-up survey to address the issue.
According to CRI director of analytics Mae Nutley, food quality perception is not necessarily tied to consistency or even food safety. It may be that and more.
What is clear is that several factors have led to an emphasis on food quality – for one, Nutley says, the down-trending of higher-income people to QSRs for meals fairly regularly, their expectations trailing not far behind them. Brands from Domino's pizza to Subway have banked on this trend, increasing sales by emphasizing fresh and/or premium ingredients.
Closely related to a customer's experience of quality in a restaurant is their emotional tie to it. More than 40 percent of consumers' willingness to pay more for services and food at restaurants is driven by their emotional ties to a particular restaurant, according to the survey, with the feeling of belonging being the strongest driver. The emotional connection to a specific restaurant drives the total number of people actually recommended to a particular restaurant and the same emotional connection determines whether consumers would seek another open location if the restaurant they typically dine at is closed.
Feelings of "belonging," Nutley said, could be contributed to by factors like overall satisfaction and feeling like a "regular." Employees' interaction with customers is also a strong driver. Customers care about manager support, too – mostly as it relates to their servers.
"Customers are looking to managers to support the employee," Nutley said. "And the employees' individualized attention of the customer led to that feeling of belonging. So managers are indirectly supporting that by their support of employee."
One main survey takeaway, Nutley has stressed, is thus the need for managers to be in visible, front-line positions supporting their staff. But they also need to give employees more leeway in making decisions and dealing with customers.
"As we've seen in so many industries, front line personnel will determine if customers remain attached to your company or not," said Renny Arredondo, chief operating officer of Corporate Research International. "It's just more evidence that companies need to maintain their workforce's happiness to ensure their customers' satisfaction."